THE IRRESISTIBLE DETECTIVE
BY ROBERT LYND
PRESIDENT WILSON’S confession to a taste—nay, more than a taste, a minor passion—for detective stories brings him into the ring of common humanity as only a man’s weaknesses can do. If Aristides had been able to boast of some comparable failing, we may be sure the Athenians would have thought twice before banishing him. It is possible that President Wilson saw himself in danger of becoming the American Aristides, and deliberately sat down to discover the best means of casting a modest slur on his name. He has certainly been fortunate in choosing his vice. There is probably no other vice on earth which is so generally diffused among good and bad men alike as the taste for the literature of crime and its pursuit by the law. From one point of view, it may be regarded as the special vice of tired people. Tobacco and whisky change the colour of one’s thoughts : detective stories are superior to either, because they prevent the need of thinking at all. When Matthew Arnold defined literature as a criticism of life, he did a grave injury to literature among people who had to earn their living. It has always been the instinct of the plain man to see in literature a means of escape from life when tired, instead of a new way of bothering about it all over again. This is especially so in a commercial age, when the expense of a single thought upon anything that has not a cash value—either in this world or the next—is looked upon by thousands of people as being scarcely more creditable than dropping pennies down a drain for fun. It is detective stories that revive the faith of simple people in literature. Here is a world as unreal as any country side of ogres and talking animals and djinns that was ever invented to scare a child or amuse a greybeard. Here one can enjoy fear as a game, and drink anxiety as from a tap. One can pretend to be playing on the edge of precipices, while all the time one knows in one’s sober consciousness one is sitting safely in the armchair. That is the secret of the appeal of detective stories. They enable us to enjoy perils in safety. There is an invincible adventurousness in all of us, which is only held in check by a scarcely less invincible cowardice. Once remove the fear of consequences from us, and there is no villain so desperate that we would not face him, though he had a machine gun in every pocket. Whether he is what the papers call an anarchist, or a murderer, or a burglar, or merely a superman, we could meet him without blenching, if only we were sure his shots could have no effect on us. This is precisely the assurance the author of sensational fiction gives us. The criminals in them are guaranteed as harmless as the lion played so apologetically by Snug the joiner. One is assured that everything they do is under direction like the movements of clockwork figures.
It may be retorted, of course, that to many readers the characters in detective stories are real enough—that they give schoolboys and City men the illusion of reality for which others go to Ibsen or Tolstoy. And there are, no doubt, some people who learn to see life in terms of detective stories just as small boys learn to see life in terms of penny dreadfuls. There must be thousands of infants, prematurely aged, who would be far less surprised to meet Deadwood Dick than Hamlet walking down the street. Even where this is so, however, it does not mean that the reader has gone to books for a criticism of life. It means simply that he has bartered life for a mess of sensations. No doubt, to many a man sitting in a public-house the tankard of beer before him is more real than his wife. Detective literature has that kind of reality. It is the literature of forgetfulness. It might not be an easy thing, we admit, to prove conclusively to a popular audience that the literature of remembrance is better than the literature of forgetfulness. One can merely urge that if literature is divorced from life, both literature and life must be weaker for the separation. But if anybody sets up a defence of bad literature, and insists that for a charwoman tired out with her day’s work a penny novelette will make better reading than Pride and Prejudice, it is difficult to contradict him. This is to admit that in certain circumstances a drop of gin may be better than a walk in the fresh air. Our instincts tell us, however, that, other things being equal, a walk in the fresh air is superior to a drop of gin any day. The defence of the penny novelette is that at least it will give the charwoman an illusion where Pride and Prejudice will only make her head ache or send her to sleep. And statesmen, clergymen, and business men occasionally feel the necessity of such an illusion just as much as charwomen. They demand an illusion which will not exhaust their brains any more than the illusion of the penny novelette exhausts the charwoman’s legs. They get this in the detective story. It is as if they were able to shut off every compartment of their faculties while one little faculty amused itself amid unreal excitements. One can read a detective story with one’s brain and spirit asleep as it were. The appetite for sensations alone stands sentinel while the rest of one’s being is at rest.
But the lure of the detective story admits of a still further explanation. It appeals to one of the oldest passions of the human race—the passion of the huntsman. Every detective story is the loosing of a hound on the scent. One remembers, as an instance from real life, how the whole world raised the hunting song after Crippen when Scotland Yard scoured the Atlantic in his pursuit with the wireless telegraph. Many people were shocked by the enthusiasm of that chase after one ugly little man. It was not that they desired the escape of Crippen so much as that they felt (in the schoolboy phrase) that it was a case of too many after one. They resented, moreover, the ignoble glee over a pursuit involving the death of the hunted man. They resented that a man’s run for life—even a murderer’s run for life—should be made a meal of sensations for the multitude. On the other hand, we hunt our Crippens in every detective story, and no one denies us the luxury of our ignobleness there. How many men Sherlock Holmes tracked to their death we do not know, but we remember how in the early days of his career our desires were always with him and not with his quarry. It may be that some social instinct is at work in our greed for detective stories. We are greedy for the triumph of virtue as we are in melodrama. We welcome the chase after the destroyers of society, and rejoice in the victory of the courage and brains of the law over the courage and brains of the criminal. This would be a comforting explanation of the literary tastes of President Wilson, but we fear it will not work. In recent years we have seen how a public, tired of the sensation of hunting down criminals, has had recourse to the new sensation of baffling detectives. Sherlock Holmes has given way to gentlemen-burglars like Arsène Lupin and Raffles, who inevitably slip out of the hands of their pursuers amid public cheers. What this swing of public sympathies may portend it would be hard to say. The moralist may enjoy seeing in it a symbol of the destruction of many of the old sanctions of society. It may be symptomatic of the fading belief in the sacredness of private property. We may be returning to the popular sentiment of the days of Robin Hood, who was everybody’s hero because he robbed only the rich. From this point of view the popularity of Arsène Lupin would mean not a revolt against virtue so much as a revolt against a morality which regarded the piled-up wealth of the sweater and the rack-renter as sacrosanct far beyond the life itself of the poor man. The awakening of the social conscience has not necessarily diminished our objections to burglars; but it has revealed to us the startling fact that there are other burglars besides those who go about in the small hours with jemmies. So that even Arsène Lupin’s polite little crimes may be a topsy-turvy tribute to virtue. As a matter of fact they are probably only a tribute to our love of revolt, as the romantic figure of Milton’s Satan is. Humanity has always loved its rebels and rogues as the disturbers of the monotony of life.
The truth is, the criminal appeals to our imagination because he is a sharp-cut and dramatic figure in a world of disciplined jelly-fish. No doubt, the saint is as boldly and dramatically an original figure, but his is a path along which it is more difficult to achieve individuality. It takes a lion’s heart to set out after saintship, while anyone may aspire to be a criminal. But this is to suggest that we are interested in the criminal as a model, while our only concern with him is owing to the fact that he is the man who produces crises. He breaks in upon the swing-swong sleepiness of life with a murder or a burglary, as Mr. Garvin does with a leading article. Mr. Garvin’s leading articles in The Observer, indeed, are simply the politician’s substitute for sensational fiction. To present life as a series of hair-raising crises—that is the ideal of the sensational journalist and the sensational novelist alike. Sensational journalists are always telling us that Mr. Asquith or Mr. Larkin, or somebody else, is on the run, and our imagination is full of the picture of the hare with the hound at its heels. Similarly, the sensational novelists accept it as their first duty to start hares for us and to entertain us with the comically stupid pursuit of the official sleuth-hounds and the cunning nose-work of some amateur detective. That is why the detective story is only tolerable as a dissipation. Nature has formed us to walk rather than to jump—to jump, at any rate, at ghosts and burglars. We find that the monotony of monotony is as nothing compared to the monotony of a succession of crises. It is said that during periods like that of the French Revolution men gradually cease to be disturbed by the spectacle of violent death, and there is no doubt that if only shocks are repeated sufficiently often they will end by no longer shocking us. That is why one should be careful not to make one’s library exclusively of detective stories. If one does, they will before long become stimulants that do not stimulate. One has only a limited capacity for the assimilation of lost wills and stolen diamonds and murdered baronets. If a baronet is murdered every morning, he becomes as ordinary a phenomenon as the milkman. Further, one does not care to see the same baronet murdered over and over again. There are no stories which bear re-reading so badly as detective stories. They have lives scarcely as long as the posters on the hoardings. Edgar Allan Poe’s murder sensations still live, but they live largely as the first of a long line of ingenuities. They have mystery, perhaps, where the ordinary detective story only has mystification. But even so, one does not read them over again with the eagerness with which one reads The Fall of the House of Ussher. There is something about nearly every detective story which reminds one mournfully of a paper collar. It is sufficient for the day, but it won’t wash.